Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrested. Seriously, Cambridge?

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[Updated at 10:00 a.m.: Charges against Henry Louis Gates Jr. have been dropped, Cambridge officials announced in a press release today. The Boston Herald reports that the city and Cambridge police described the arrest as ‘regrettable and unfortunate.’]

Preeminent scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who holds one of 20 elite professorships at Harvard University and has hosted several PBS television programs was arrested in Cambridge, Mass., on Thursday at his home. According to an Associated Press report, police responded to a call about ‘two black males’:


Cambridge police say they responded to the well-maintained two-story home after a woman reported seeing ‘two black males with backpacks on the porch,’ with one ‘wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.’

By the time police arrived, Gates -- the 58-year-old director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and one of the ‘two black males’ -- was inside the house, which he leases from Harvard. He’d just returned from a trip to China, had found the front door jammed and entered through the rear. The police report says that he initially declined to come outside and show an officer his identification, allegedly saying, ‘Why, because I’m a black man in America?’

In his 1992 book ‘Loose Canons,’ which our reviewer said exhibited Gates’ ‘stiletto wit,’ Gates wrote,

It’s important to remember that ‘race’ is only a sociopolitical category, nothing more. At the same time ... that doesn’t help me when I’m trying to get a taxi on the corner of 125th and Lenox Avenue.

Nor, apparently, does it help with the police in Cambridge. Although Gates showed them identification, he was handcuffed, taken into custody and charged with disorderly conduct because, according to the report, he ‘exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior.’

Gates’ colleague and attorney, Charles Ogletree, questioned this description, telling the Associated Press that the scholar had ‘an infection that impacted his breathing’ and was walking with a cane.


In his 1994 book ‘Colored People: A Memoir,’ Gates wrote:

Completely by the accident of racism, we have been bound together with people with whom we may or may not have something in common, just because we are ‘black.’ Thirty million Americans are black, and 30 million is a lot of people. One day you wonder: What do the misdeeds of a Mike Tyson have to do with me? So why do I feel implicated? And how can I not feel racial recrimination when I can feel racial pride? ...

I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time -- but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color.

Our reviewer, Richard Eder, characterized Gates’ perspective as ‘the new openness.’ ‘It does not fall along older left-right lines,’ Eder wrote. ‘It tends to strike a shifting center as it considers the ways in which quotas, government redress of economic imbalances, racially based politics and the like help and harm the advancement of African Americans.’

More of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s writing after the jump.

One of his first acts at Harvard was to hire Spike Lee as a guest lecturer; another was to lure Cornell West from Princeton. These bold moves, according to a 1994 profile of Gates that ran in the L.A. Times, were seen as dynamic and spirited.

Early in this century, Gates writes in [‘Colored People: A Memoir’], black entertainer Bert Williams observed that ‘it’s no disgrace to be colored. But it is awfully inconvenient.’


Even at the very tip-top of the academic heap, Gates comes to much the same conclusion today. ‘Yes!’ he railed. ‘It is inconvenient, because of white racism. When I walk into a room, people still see my blackness, more than my Gates-ness, or my literary-ness.’

The question of what it means to be seen as black has continued to be one that Gates has addressed. In 2000, Gates, Ogletree and 21 other Harvard faculty members signed an opinion article that ran in the L.A. Times regarding the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, who was shot by New York City police officers. The article said, in part:

Few of us are immune from the toxins of racial mistrust and misunderstanding, but law enforcement professionals must be held to a higher standard because they are public servants armed with the discretion and power both to destroy and to save lives.

That article praised the Boston Police Department for achieving ‘the dual goal of preserving and maintaining respect for communities of color and providing protection and policing.’ Maybe not so for Cambridge.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Top photo: Henry Louis Gates Jr. at home in 2008. Credit: Josh Reynolds / Associated Press. Lower photo: Cambridge Police Department / Associated Press